Are there antibiotics in the meat you eat? If you’re buying factory farmed meat, there’s a good chance what you’re serving up contains varying levels of antibiotic residues. Factory farms often give antibiotics to the animals they raise to lower their risk of infection since they keep the animals in such close quarters. Crowded living conditions lead to a higher risk of infection. Up until 2017, farms also frequently gave antibiotics to animals to speed up their growth and increase their size. The FDA made some changes in 2017 that prohibits this practice.
As you already know, antibiotic resistance is a growing problem and it’s not just overprescribing of antibiotics by the medical community. According to the American Journal of Public Health, around 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to farm animals. Such practices fuel the problem of antibiotic resistance and are responsible for the rise in “superbugs.” These are bacteria that are resistant to most of the available antibiotics. Plus, who wants to eat food that contains antibiotics?
One way we can help curb the problem of antibiotic resistance and keep antibiotics out of your own body is to consume meat from animals that weren’t exposed to them. In response to the demand for foods that are free of antibiotics, some suppliers are reducing the number of antibiotics they give animals bred for food. If you look at a package of meat, you might see meat marked with certain lingo that suggests they are free of antibiotics. Let’s look at what these “antibiotic labels” mean:
Meat and poultry marked as organic means the animals were raised without antibiotics. If the package is stamped, USDA organic, you’re getting antibiotic-free meat. This assumes, of course, that the supplier isn’t “cheating.” However, they are subject to inspections to ensure they’re meeting the organic guidelines. Suppliers can still give antibiotics to chicks that are still in the egg but have to discontinue antibiotics after the first day of birth.
One word of caution: Organic meat sounds like a healthier option, and compared to conventional meat, it is. However, a study published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research in 2017 found that even organic meat, raised without antibiotics, is contaminated with persistent organic pollutants, some of which are known carcinogens. In fact, when they tested 76 meat samples, some raised conventionally and some organically, none of the samples were free of these pollutants. The difference between conventional and organic meat was marginal. So, organic meat can still be a source of environmental pollutants that are linked with cancer.
“Raised without Antibiotics”
Meat marked as “raised without antibiotics” means the animals were given no antibiotics, even for an infection. If an animal becomes ill and needs antibiotics, the animal is moved to a separate area and the meat is marked as conventional. Unfortunately, this claim isn’t verified by the United States Department of Agriculture to ensure that it’s not abused or misused. That’s why buying organic meat with a USDA seal offers greater reassurance that a meat product is free of antibiotics.
“No Medically Important Antibiotics”
This designation means that the meat is free of antibiotics used to treat infections in humans. This refers to the common antibiotics doctors prescribe such as tetracycline and penicillin. Yet, it’s no guarantee that the meat is free of all antibiotics as there are other antibiotics that aren’t routinely used by the medical profession. In many ways, this is no better than conventionally raised meat as the meat or poultry can still contain antibiotics capable of causing antibiotic resistance.
“No Growth-Promoting Antibiotics”
This is a bit misleading as the FDA no longer allows meat producers to give antibiotics to animals to enhance their growth. This label doesn’t prevent producers from giving antibiotics to animals for disease prevention. So, when you see this label, it doesn’t necessarily mean the animal received no antibiotics. It just means they weren’t given antibiotics for the purpose of making them grow larger. Despite this, research suggests that some farmers aren’t abiding by these regulations and are still giving healthy animals antibiotics to enhance growth.
Why Should You Be Concerned about Antibiotics in Meat?
Beyond the issue of antibiotics resistance, a growing problem around the world, there’s evidence that the antibiotics in meat may be harmful in other ways. For example, studies suggest that antibiotics, even in low quantities, can alter the composition of our gut microbiome, the bacteria that live in our gut and help regulate digestion and immune health. 70% of your immune system lies in your gut.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are still a problem, despite efforts by regulatory agencies to curb the overuse of antibiotics in food animals. A study carried out by the Environmental Working Group found antibiotic-resistance bacteria on a significant number of the samples they tested. These included:
· 79% of ground turkey
· 71% of pork samples
· 62% of ground beef
· 36% of chicken
Obviously, antibiotics in meat is still a problem. In a recent study of 25 popular fast food and burger chains, only 2 got high marks for serving antibiotic-free meat They were Shake Shake and BurgerFi. The others either failed completely or got a grade of D-. Wendy’s got a D -, as opposed to failing because they are taking positive steps to reduce antibiotics in their food.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know what the antibiotic labels mean and can be smarter about shopping for meat. Your best bet is to buy organic, but as mentioned, organic meat can still harbor environmental pollutants. Be aware that you’re likely exposing yourself to antibiotics if you buy meat at a restaurant or a fast food joint unless they specifically say that they serve antibiotic-free meat. Just as importantly, cut back on the amount of meat you eat and enjoy more plant-based foods. You can’t go wrong with that!
Am J Public Health. 2015 December; 105(12): 2409–2410.
Environmental Science and Pollution Research; February 2017, Vol. 24 Issue: Number 5 p4261-4273, 13p.
Consumer Reports. “What “No Antibiotics” Claims Really Mean”
Medical Press. “’Superbugs’ found in the vast majority of U.S. supermarket meat”
CNN.com. “Most burger chains fail on annual antibiotics report card”